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The Importance of Uncertainty

Some people address problems through a moral lens and others a spiritual one.

Key points

  • Morality gives us an external point of reference on which we often base our self-worth.
  • Spirituality gives us an internal reference from which to deal with uncertainty.
  • An internal point of reference can be grounding.

What's the difference between how spirituality affects a person and how morality affects a person? The distinction is critical to our capacity for resilience and personal empowerment, and one which runs through the therapeutic process.

As a therapist, when I see a person who is trying hard to live up to a high standard of morality, I often see a person who has a hard time making decisions where the area of endeavor is grey, rather than black and white. They frequently don’t know which is the “right” thing to do. Very often, this is because they have not yet had anyone of authority tell them what the “right” thing is.

Where a strict adherence to morality is a primary coping mechanism, the religious authority (regardless of religion) or other moral authority is seen as the answer to every question regarding the moral codes of behavior. When that person is not available, or the area of endeavor is grey, as we said above, the person may feel stuck in a quagmire of doubt and fear over doing the “wrong” thing.

Let’s say a person like this came to therapy because his family of origin is very enmeshed. A family system is enmeshed when it feels almost impossible for any one member to disentangle themselves from the family's pressures for conformity. In this case, he has lived up to this point entangled in his parent’s ideas of “right” and “wrong.” Further, his particular religion holds to these same values. But recently, he has encountered a situation that doesn’t fit within the parameters of these ideas. He wants to do the thing that seems “wrong.” Suppose what he wants is to divorce a woman he never really loved, but he has been taught that getting a divorce is wrong. I often find that clients with this kind of predicament will frequently ask me, “What should I do?” My answer is always, “I don’t have any shoulds for you.” Then we go on to explore his inner conflict.

Andrea Mathews
Andrea Mathews

The biggest problem for this person is that he is basing his self-worth on whether or not he can live up to his idea of what he should be doing. Obviously, this is going to be an issue when it comes to deciding what is “right” and what is “wrong.” Further, he is trying to live up to an external standard that has been given to him by external authorities. He may not have a strong internal authority. Together, these two things put him in a one-man-down position before he even starts to work on the dilemma of the day.

People who have discovered a strong spirituality, based on an experience with their sense of connection to a universal energy, or otherwise by whatever name they call it, will demonstrate a stronger alliance with the self, and the power of knowing what they want to do in a given situation. This does not, of course, mean that they lack any ethical values. Ethical values are not the same as morality. A person may look within to an internal authority to decide on a particular issue when they are operating from ethics. When they do this, they are not basing their self-worth on a high external standard of “right” or “wrong.” Therefore, though they may have issues to resolve, such as problems with relationships, difficult choices, past traumas, etc., they are not stuck in the quagmire of other people’s values. The baseline of their coping mechanisms is an inner reference, rather than a reference to an external standard of obedience.

It may seem to a person who lives on morality that they will never have to deal with uncertainty because they should always know what is "right" and what is "wrong." So when they hit these grey areas of life, they are often very anxious, even frightened. But for the person who has a strong spirituality, there is a sense that uncertainty is essential to the process of discovery. Most people who are deeply spiritual are seekers. This seeking implies that there is a discovery process that includes a baseline of uncertainty. If the person living by a code of morality wishes to make decisions in the grey areas of life, they may have to learn to live with a certain degree of uncertainty and turn within for answers. This will require the willingness to experience something within, perhaps even something that truly connects them to some sort of higher power.

Spirituality doesn't just mean religion. It might be the practice of meditation, bodywork, or therapy that assists in getting in touch with the inner Self. Experience, rather than belief, is the key. We can believe all kinds of things that may or may not be true, but a spiritual experience is believable for the most part because it can offer us an inner knowing, one that is at least grounding enough to allow us to reflect on uncertainty.

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